As anyone who reads this blog knows, Loretta and I are always quick to find local museums, historical societies, and other collections wherever we go. It's rare, however, to be among the first to visit a brand-new museum. Last week I was fortunate to attend a preview of the new Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia, PA. The evolution of a century-old collection once known as the Valley Forge Museum of American History, the new museum will officially open this Wednesday, April 19 - the 242nd anniversary of the Battles of Lexington and Concord that began the war.
In a city filled with 18thc, historical landmarks (Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell, and Carpenters Hall are neighbors, and the First Bank of America is right across the street), it's reasonable to ask if we need one more museum devoted to the American Revolution. Within the first minute of the museum's introductory video, the answer is clear: a resounding YES.
Because unlike the majority of historical sites in the region, the new museum was designed from its inception to tell not just the traditional story of the Revolution - the one most of us learned in school featuring those exceptional white male Founding Fathers, and maybe Betsey Ross - but hundreds of others. The most important single word here is "inclusive," because this museum includes the stories of enslaved Africans and Native Americans, women and children, poor laborers and soldiers as well as plantation owners and generals, those who tried to remain neutral during the conflict and those who stayed loyal to the Crown. In other words, it strives to share the many diverse and often unruly voices that somehow, against the odds, managed to come together to create a new country.
To do this, the museum offers a wealth of technological showpieces. The digital interactions, films, unexpected life-sized tableaux, upper right, of recreated historical events, a two-story recreation of a Liberty Tree, upper left, a meeting between the men and women of the Oneida Indian Nation debating which side to support, and a large-scale replica of privateer ship to climb aboard are all truly dazzling. One of the most effective is a small "battlefield theatre" that surrounds visitors with the sounds, sights, and gunpowder smoke of the Battle of Brandywine, complete with thunderous cannon-fire that you feel through the floor. Guides made sure to point out where the exit door was if things became too intense; I wondered how many of the newly-recruited American soldiers experiencing their first terrifying action on that hot September day in 1777 wished they'd had an escape door, too.
But that's one of the museum's great strengths. Exhibits make it easy to identify with the people - all the people - who contributed to the Revolution, both through computer-generated wizardry and well-chosen artifacts, like the baby shoes, middle left. The shoes belonged to the children of Sgt. James Davenport of Massachusetts, and were fashioned from the captured coat of a British soldier; to Davenport, who lost two brothers in the war, the shoes must have been a poignant reminder of the cost of liberty won for the next generation. Law books owned by Patrick Henry are balanced by a signed 1773 volume of Poems on Various Subjects by the country's first published black poet, Phillis Wheatley, written while she was still enslaved, lower right. Swords and muskets are complimented by a book of religious sermons that brought comfort to Martha Washington as she accompanied her husband and the army.
Nor do the exhibits shy from more difficult truths. The Continental Army was never a single, cohesive fighting unit, but a quarrelsome, faction-riddled force often on the verge of mutiny and desertion. Demonstrations of patriotic fervor could quickly degenerate into dangerous and destructive mobs. And the first Congressmen backed away from the abolition of slavery that could have truly fulfilled the promise of "all men created equal," with lasting ramifications that remain in America today.
Of course there are bound to be people who will think this kind of more complete history somehow diminishes the traditional version that they already know. One review of the museum in a national newspaper complained that this weakens the Revolution's familiar narrative, and cited as an example how the Battle of Saratoga is featured through the experiences of Baroness von Riesdesel, the wife of the commander of the Brunswick (Hessian) troops fighting with the British, lower left. Why this woman, the reviewer complained, and not the much better known British Gen. John Burgoyne?
Well, perhaps because the Baroness spent the last week of the siege barricaded in the cellar of a house with cannonballs flying all around her. She not only guarded the lives of other women and children entrusted to her care, but also tended to the wounded who were brought to her, and saved dozens of lives through her courage and dedication. As for Burgoyne, he was the losing general in a costly battle that he should have won. Heroes, and heroines, are where you find them, I guess.
But the ultimate lesson of the museum is to show exactly how hard-fought - and how fragile - the "American experiment" was at its inception, and how it remains so today. The history lessons that are being offered here are meant to inspire present-day citizens to realize that we shouldn't take any of this for granted. The newly-minted Americans of 1781 certainly didn't, and if ever there were a time for us in the twenty-first century to hear and remember this wide range of diverse voices from our collective past, then this is it.
I'll be sharing more from my visit in future posts. Having just finished writing I, Eliza Hamilton, which includes many of the same people, places, and events that the museum features, I can't get enough of the American Revolution!
For more information about the Museum of the American Revolution, visit their website here.
All photographs (except of Baroness Von Riesdesel) copyright and courtesy of MOAR.
Baroness Von Riesdesel exhibit photography by Susan Holloway Scott.